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    Questioning the Socratic method

    Cold calling by the professor ... The terror ... Students freeze under interrogation ... Socratic teaching under fire at Harvard Law School ... White men pipe-up most ... Hot topics under threat ... From Hannah Ryan 

    "'The law is reason free from passion'," Professor Stromwell declares, as she writes the phrase on the classroom's chalkboard. "Does anyone know who spoke those immortal words?" 

    "Aristotle," volunteers one student.

    "Are you sure?" she asks.

    He nods.

    "Would you be willing to stake your life on it?" 

    "I think so," he replies. 

    "What about his life," she asks, pointing at a fellow student.

    "I don't know," stammers the student.

    "Well, I recommend knowing before speaking," the professor advises. "The law leaves much room for interpretation - but very little for self-doubt." 

    You can see it all here: 

    A different Greek philosopher serves as the eponym for this pedagogical approach. The Socratic method is such a part of the mythology of Harvard Law School that without this scene, the school's portrayal in Legally Blonde - a film not otherwise wholeheartedly committed to realism - would have seemed a little off. Readers of a different generation might also recall a more psychosexual portrayal in The Paper Chase

    In its traditional form, the method has two components, each terrifying students along a different axis. The first is possible humiliation: a back-and-forth between student and professor, a new question following a student's every answer, so that eventually each premise is tested and each assumption exposed. The student is on the spot, examined in front of the entire class. 

    A chilling unpredictability is added with the second element: cold-calling. Apparently at random, the professor chooses a student from the seating plan to answer this spate of questioning. You don't know when your time will come, but when it does you better have done the readings. 

    The Socratic method was born at Harvard Law School. Some would have it die here too. 

    One of the method's virtues is said to be that it removes the professor from their hallowed pedestal. Students end up talking far more than the professor; much of the substantive material and ideas are coaxed from the students' lips, rather than being lectured from on high. Students are forced to think much more critically than if they were simply transcribing a teacher's speech (the way I often did during my legal education in Australia). 

    Although the method can plausibly claim to upset somewhat the teacher-student hierarchy, it stands accused of reinforcing others. "It's the worst thing in the world," one female HLS student told campus rag the Crimson a few years ago. "It forces you to talk like a man."

    The same student went on:

    "It made me feel really uncomfortable and incompetent at first, and it really impacted my performance in classes the first year ... Women take longer to process thoughts before they feel comfortable to say them out loud than men do." 

    A student organisation called the Harassment Assault Law-Student Team calls on its website for HLS to alter the Socratic method to account for traumatised students' needs. "An aggressive classroom tone [subjects] students to the panic that suddenly being put on the spot can invoke, along with the fear of knowing a cold call is imminent," its website reads.

    "This can prompt a flight or fight reaction, causing the student to shut down, freeze, dissociate, and/or experience a flashback or panic attack." 

    Context has reinflamed these critiques. A mysterious act of racism last academic year has provoked a burst of activism, soul-searching and chatter about diversity and inclusion, about how to make Harvard Law School a better place.

    Activist group Reclaim Harvard Law's list of demands calls for the formation of a diversity committee, which would investigate the Socratic method, among other topics. 

    The Socratic method and its detractors were the subject of a recent talk by Professor Jeannie Suk Gersen, as part of a lecture series called Diversity and Social Justice - itself possibly a partial response to the recent ferment

    In 2006, Suk Gersen was the second women of colour ever appointed to the law school's faculty. She hails from a Korean immigrant family, and as a student preferred to be in the library, silently studying, than in the classroom. Cold-calling, she said in her lecture, was a "revelation that changed my life". As a professor, she considers herself one of the strictest users of the method. 

    The question she is concerned with, she said, is "how through our teaching we can best promote equality of educational opportunity and equality in the legal profession and in society". But the answer is not giving Socrates the sack.  

    If she relied on students to volunteer to speak, Suk Gersen observed, it's white men who will pipe up the most. That suggestion is backed up by a 2004 study of Harvard students, which found that men were likelier to volunteer to speak in class, and likelier to to volunteer repeatedly. 

    Prof Suk Gersen: students shouldn't be mocked

    Suk Gersen, who teaches criminal law, challenged a strain of Socrates' detractors who use the language of trauma to describe the suffering they experience when they're called on. The terminology, she says, echoes that used by sexual assault victims reacting to trauma. The rhetorical move "serves to compare the experience of being called on in a Socratic classroom to an assault," she said. 

    Ironically, she argued, it's women and minorities who are threatened by these criticisms. They're more likely to be teaching what she calls "hot topics" (including rape law, which Suk Gersen teaches, and has written on in The New Yorker).

    They, therefore, "bear a greater risk that something that happens while teaching will be considered by someone as traumatic." The danger of calling out the Socratic method too virulently, then, is that teachers will avoid topics that they see as too hot to handle - but are important for a law school to deal with. 

    Suk Gersen encourages professors to continue to practice the Socratic method, but with a healthy dose of empathy. Students shouldn't be mocked for getting it wrong. At the same time, she warns students to think about the language they use to describe their experience of being called on. 

    While at Harvard, I have taken two constitutional law classes, one which relied on volunteers, and the other which deployed cold-calling.

    For the first, I rarely managed to read the cases ahead of class and crammed them all before the exam. For the second, I always come to class prepared and, what's more, I somehow manage to concentrate for the full two hours (for a millennial, this is something of a miracle). In the first class, I felt safe and a little sleepy. In the second, I'm constantly terrified. It's safe to say I've gotten more out of the second course.

    But it's worth asking how much of my own experience, and Professor Suk Gersen's, should be generalised across all the cultures and backgrounds that show up at the law school. A Maori friend studying with me tells me that in his culture, being singled out and shown to be wrong in front of others can invite not just embarrassment, but shame.

    Perhaps my terror is misplaced. In a recent class, the professor picked on a student who'd volunteered to answer an earlier question and asked him for the facts of a case. 

    "I didn't actually read that one," the student confessed. We all laughed - collegially, not accusingly. 

    Half-an-hour later, the professor asked another student a question based on what he'd just been saying about Rawlsian public reason. 

    She stammered a brief answer and then confessed: "I wasn't listening to what you were saying." 

    We all laughed again. 

    On that day at least, it seemed the method could be just as humiliating for the professor as for the students. 

    Hannah Ryan is an Australian Law Graduate studying at Harvard Law School 

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